OAKLAND -- With police facing intensifying criticism from city leaders for again failing to prevent a small number of agitators from vandalizing downtown businesses during the tail end of mass protests, Chief Sean Whent gave no assurances Tuesday that he would get tougher on vandals.

"Our focus in all these things is about safety of people over property," Whent said on KQED's Forum program. "That includes the safety of citizens and police officers."

To illustrate the risks faced by police, Whent said that officers who raced across Broadway late last night to arrest vandals smashing windows at a Men's Warehouse were attacked by the crowd.

"That's why we ended up deploying gas to basically rescue the officers out of there," he said.

Whent's comments contrasted sharply with those of Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck, whose force also has faced off with violent protesters following the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager.

Beck warned the agitators Tuesday that "if you come here again tonight, you will go to jail," the L.A. Times reported.

Mayor Jean Quan told KQED that police must do better but that the vandals are a slippery foe for an understaffed police department. "It's a fine line to honor the tradition of protest in the city and on the other hand to get enough resources out to do the violence prevention," she said.

Monday's protests in Oakland were the largest and most violent since Saturday's jury verdict in a case that has sparked a national debate about racial profiling. Hundreds of protesters briefly took over a section of Interstate 880 early in the evening. Shortly after 11 p.m. a much smaller group of masked vandals began smashing windows downtown. One waiter at a downtown restaurant was hit in the face while trying to stop a hammer-wielding vandal.

"If I was a retailer thinking about coming to downtown Oakland, I wouldn't do it given what's transpired the last few nights," Councilman Larry Reid said. "My business couldn't be protected, and my employees couldn't be protected."

Reid and other city leaders fear that after years of being accused of acting too aggressively against protesters -- and paying out tens of millions of dollars in police misconduct lawsuits -- officers now are showing too much restraint.

The department currently is under federal supervision after failing to satisfy court-mandated reforms. The court-appointed federal overseer, former Baltimore Police Commissioner Thomas Frazier, had previously excoriated the department's handling of the 2011 Occupy Oakland protests that resulted in 44 officers facing disciplinary charges.

Former Councilman Ignacio De La Fuente said police are being reigned in by outside powers calling the shots. "The result is that they're not doing what they are supposed to do when they see people committing a crime or violating the law," he said.

Frazier could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Whent said he didn't think the fallout from the Occupy protests or recent million-dollar settlements awarded to protesters had made officers shy away from conflict.

"If it's in the back of their minds, that could be a possibility, but I don't think that is the case," he said during an afternoon news conference.

Whent said that police were caught off-guard by the size and intensity of Monday's protest. After hundreds of demonstrators marched onto the freeway, police reassigned officers from elsewhere in the city and received additional help from nine outside police agencies.

With their numbers augmented, police were able to flank protesters, which put them in a better position to target troublemakers, Whent said. Police made nine arrests Monday, after making just one the previous two nights of protests. Whent said that might not seem like much but added that there were relatively few agitators interspersed among the protesters. "It's very difficult to march into a crowd of several hundred people to grab a few who are breaking windows," he said.

Councilman Dan Kalb wouldn't criticize police but said the only way to stop the vandals was to bring them to justice. "We need to arrest people who are breaking windows and committing violent acts," he said. "And we need to arrest as many of them as possible."

Contact Matthew Artz at 510-208-6435.